Low-stress handling gets attention

The provincial co-ordinator of Saskatchewan VBP says the practice has an important role in animal welfare production

LANGHAM, Sask. — A small herd of freshly weaned calves were a test of low-stress cattle handling techniques.

“These cattle were a little flightier, so pressure and release. I put some pressure on them and then released that pressure hoping to draw their movement past me,” Lee Sinclair of Merck Animal Health said Oct. 1 during the one-day workshop at the Ag in Motion site near Langham, Sask.

“I wanted to try and teach them that they could come by me without harm and we tried to get them to slow down. We got a little long today and that happens when we’re doing a demo, but if we could do short seven-minute lessons and then leave them for an hour or two and come back, that would be ideal.”

Saskatchewan organizers of Verified Beef Production Plus, along with Merck Animal Health, teamed up to provide several hands-on cattle handling demonstrations at fall workshops throughout the province.

Coy Schellenberg, provincial co-ordinator of Saskatchewan VBP, said low-stress handling is getting more attention and is an important part of animal welfare production practices.

“If we can reduce stressful impact on the cattle when we’re doing necessary application and practice, we get a better result in the end from an animal care perspective. The animal is cared for in a less stressful manner as well as an efficient production aspect. They’re going to gain better, they’re going to be healthier,” he said.

“One of the other benefits is that we can potentially reduce the amount of antibiotic use if cattle are not stressed as much because the cortisol that’s released makes them susceptible to illness when they’re stressed.”

Schellenberg said instructors throughout the industry are promoting several methods and approaches, which is also referred to as effective cattle handling.

“What Merck is doing is they’ve taken lots of these different methods and analyzed them based on practice and kind of pulled out the best of everything and put it into a package called Creating Connections and worked with experts that are utilizing them in the feedlot and cow-calf industries,” he said.

“Some of it is a little bit different than conventional production, where we would try and move cattle. More of it is going towards settling and leading, which is what he (Sinclair) was doing today.”

Added Sinclair: “This is just old stuff that’s maybe fine tuned. Now we have the technology and can watch videos and can break it down that way.”

Sinclair described three steps to follow in a cattle handling program, which can be reviewed at creatingconnections.info:

  • Cattle want to come half way around the handler.
  • Cattle want to see you, their source of guidance.
  • Cattle want to see their destination at the same time.

Whenever possible, it’s best to work off the front of the herd and not try to push them.

“There are times we have to get in behind, but if we can stay to the front or to the side and have those cattle come half around us and see us, their source of guidance and their destination simultaneously, that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Sinclair, adding that cattle and human behaviours have a lot in common when it comes to proximity.

“With humans we use straight angles. I might have to come at an angle to somebody or move my body sideways. Some people can’t handle it, looking right at them,” he said.

“We might need to stand sideways and have a conversation with them. A cow or calf doesn’t know Spanish versus English but I can communicate with that individual with my body language.

“In cattle we call it the flight zone and pressure zone. With humans it’s their personal space, and everybody’s got their own personal space that they’re good with.

“Cattle are the same way. We can be low stress, but we still need pressure to get some movement, but we need to know when to take that pressure off.”

Many cattle handling techniques depend on alleys, squeezes and other structures, so producers need to work within them.

A common mistake is to overfill the tub and use it as a holding facility, said Sinclair.

“The tub is just a flow through, whereas a lot of people load up the tub. If we can have one in the chute and three in the alley, well they’ll have 10 in the tub and it’s too much.”

As part of the workshop, Sinclair showed videos of getting a cow into the barn and into the yard for calving as well as tagging, branding and weaning.

“Essentially, handling starts the minute they’re born. It’s not even over at weaning time because now we’ve taken them off the cow,” he said.

“Now we’ve got them in the backgrounding yard or the feedlot. And then we’ve got to get them on the trailer. We’ve got to get them maybe to an auction mart or to the packing plant if he’s a finished steer…. So a good experience when he’s a calf all the way through the system enhances productivity. Either we’re going to let these cattle gain weight or we’re going to take it off by poor handling.”

During his presentation, Sinclair asked for a show of hands from the 30 livestock producers indicating where they would position themselves to move cattle.

He said the vast majority — 70 to 90 percent — indicated they’d go behind the herd and push them forward.

“No, we need to work from the front,” he said.

To demonstrate his point, all eyes followed him as he walked behind the cattle producers in the room.

“Should I do my presentation from back here? I need your attention up there. I need you to go that way. Instead, everyone is looking at me standing back here. It’s the same thing with our cows,” he said.

“It’s human nature to get in behind because we’re a prey animal. I’m going to push because time is money.”

Added Schellenberg: “The time invested can bring reward later with better health in your animals and better gain.”

However, he said it’s a big shift for many cattle producers to change from pushing to leading.

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